Carrie Weekes (left) and Fran Glover.
Possibly the most un-funereal undertakers that you could find, these two women have quietly set about bringing funerals into the 21st century since they created A Natural Undertaking in 2014. Now in its third year, the Birmingham company has gathered awards and accolades along the way with their intelligent, responsive and creative approach to caring for the dead and the bereaved, and their determination to help families say goodbye in the way that is right for them, at a price they can afford.
The roots of A Natural Undertaking are buried deep in the past, Carrie’s mother died young, and it was the complete absence of relevance and meaning of her funeral, the impersonal detachment and lack of personal significance that sparked an anger within Carrie that simmered for twenty years before erupting into a determination to investigate why funerals in the UK are so poor.
A former librarian who had also worked in a role helping people to set up and run social enterprises, Carrie had spent two and a half years caring for her daughter through a serious illness. She was diagnosed on the day that Carrie had planned to start a training course in celebrancy, a course that obviously, she never got to do, but once her daughter had recovered, the deep-seated desire to do funerals differently took hold,
“Several of the children we got to know in hospital never got better. Those families are the ones who really need a service that is human and kind, and more importantly, led by them. The idea that these families would hand their dead child to a stranger to “look after” before a funeral just nagged at me. What if we gave these people information about what is possible? Would they still make the same choices?”
Like the best of librarians, Carrie set about doing her research. She sought out some of the best practitioners around the country, both traditional and pioneering, and contacted them, spending time working alongside them and asking questions. Carrie is very good at asking questions.
Fran Glover knew Carrie through their husbands, who had been friends for years. Fran ran her own successful marketing company and she offered to help Carrie get started by defining her business and marketing position. She was aware of what Carrie wanted to do and the notion of creating personal funerals resonated with her own experiences. Fran has a strong eye for detail and she could already see more ways to support families in need.
By the end of their first morning together, Fran was hooked. “I’d got to a point in my career where I felt I’d achieved a lot, but also felt that something was missing. I didn’t really get involved in the community where I lived and I felt like I needed to do something that contributed more to society in general; something that had real purpose and meaning.”
Working together the beginnings of an idea started to take shape, of a different kind of undertaking service for the people of their community in Kings Heath and Moseley and ultimately the whole of Birmingham and beyond. An ethical, emotionally intelligent service that would dispense with all the layers of rigid assumptions about what a funeral should look like, all the incomprehensible, meaningless traditions that have built up over the years, and be completely responsive to the needs of families left behind when someone dies.
Together, they set about making the idea a reality. In November 2014 ‘A Natural Undertaking’ was launched, with the help of a small start-up loan and huge amounts of research and preparation. From the beginning, it was important to get the look and feel right, and the Natural Undertaking website beautifully reflects the ethos and difference of the business. Fresh, simple and beautiful, it is light years away from the traditional doom and gloom horse drawn carriages and faux sympathy of a myriad of other funeral director websites. For anyone going online to try and find some information about what they need to do to organise a funeral, landing on the homepage here would surely elicit a sigh of relief. There’s plenty of information, but it’s not overwhelming, and it’s written in a natural, straightforward way.
The business model is a simple one. Carrie or Fran will answer the phone to you, it will be Carrie or Fran who comes to meet you, to listen to what you need them to do, and who assumes responsibility for making sure everything is done as you want. Probably one of the first things they will say to you when you call is that you don’t need to use an undertaker if you don’t want to, and they are more than happy to help you as much or as little as you want. If you decide to go ahead and engage them to help you, their prices are transparent and extremely reasonable, and you can choose exactly which services you need.
It will be Carrie and Fran who collect the person who has died, bringing assistance if needed. If you are with the person who has died, they will make certain that you have had as much time with them as you want, there is no need to rush over in the middle of the night to take the body away unless you definitely want them to. It will be Carrie and Fran who wash and dress your relative, and place them in their coffin or shroud, and it will be Carrie and Fran who support you until the day of the burial or cremation, throughout that day and afterwards. They work seamlessly as a team, effortlessly assuming either the lead or the supportive role depending on who has taken responsibility for each family. And they positively encourage you and your family to have the freedom to do what comes naturally to you.
When you meet with either of them, they will want to know all about the person who has died, something the vast majority of funeral arrangers often miss out. Talking about your relative and the things they did and liked when they were alive can often spark ideas for how to commemorate them, ways to make the event meaningful and personal, and Carrie and Fran will pick up on ideas and find ways to weave them into the ceremony or the day as a whole.
On the day that we visited them, a detailed funeral had been arranged and we were able to accompany them from the early morning briefing around Fran’s kitchen table all the way through the day until the grave was filled in by family members. The farewell had been planned by the woman who had died when she met with Fran some months previously, and every tiny detail had been taken care of. Baskets of feathers, glitter glue, stickers, pens and tissue paper for decorating the coffin sat waiting to be packed into the car, different coloured luggage labels were tied around sparklers, with printed instructions attached so that guests knew what to do with them, candles in storm lanterns had been prepared for assistants to take along the guard of honour to light the sparklers with – hours of preparation and care had gone into this one day, along with detailed consideration of timings and risk assessments.
The day went without a hitch, from the gentle transfer from the fridge in the mortuary Carrie and Fran use, to the children running ahead of the coffin at the natural burial ground, spreading bubbles in the sunshine, accompanied by chanting and drumming. Gently, quietly supported by Fran, with Carrie and other assistants in the background, the family and friends had created exactly the event that this woman had wanted and they honoured her memory in an unforgettable day. The unobtrusive, supportive presence among them of two women determined to help them make the day a meaningful and memorable event was probably not even noticed by most people there, which is exactly as it should be.
Making sure that you know what your choices are, and supporting you whatever these might be. Both Carrie and Fran are completely honest and transparent, and will answer any questions you might have and listen carefully to make sure that they completely understand what you want.
A Natural Undertaking is the only funeral company in Birmingham to proactively offer a broad range of green and environmental options but they arrange all kinds of funerals – they don’t make any assumptions about what might be right for you.
It is also embedded in the community around it; both Fran and Carrie are on the committee of BrumYODO, a local collective set up with the aim of helping the people of Birmingham to have open and honest conversations about death and dying. They regularly host Death Cafes and devote a large amount of time to raising awareness of end of life matters in their local community.
Helping people who have been bereaved to understand what they need when someone dies, rather than what they might feel is expected, and helping them to achieve it. Providing clear and transparent information to help make informed choices. And being utterly normal. Both Carrie and Fran are the kind of people you’d feel comfortable striking up a conversation with in a coffee shop or on a bus, they are ordinary people doing extraordinary work in a very straightforward, unpretentious way.
There are no other undertakers like this in Birmingham. Forget everything that comes to mind when you think of the typical funeral director, these women dress the same as us, talk the same as us and are driven by a determination to unpick the strange customs that have built up around funerals by asking whether they serve a purpose for you.
Here’s what they say:
“Often when a person dies, their final moments of care, their resting place and their funeral or memorial are entrusted to strangers to plan and carry out. These activities are mostly carried out according to conventions and models that have built up over the years and which follow a fairly standard format and method of delivery.
But what if these traditions don’t accurately reflect the person who died? What if the people left behind want greater involvement in their relative or friend’s final send-off? What if it could just be done differently?
Well it can. You can.
There are some rules.
But not many.”
This company will do what a proper undertaker should do. They won’t sell you anything you don’t need or want. They’ll listen, they’ll make suggestions, they’ll offer advice or assistance where needed and they’ll look after the person who has died with gentle kindness and care.
They will be safe hands if you need them to guide you through the sadness of someone dying. You can lean on them if you need to, that’s what they are for. They will support you in every decision you make. But you can also be in control all the way. That’s exactly how it should be.
These undertakers are people you can totally trust, people to whom you will be forever be grateful, for helping you do what is natural. Saying goodbye to someone you love in a way that is right for you.
Any decisions you take on engaging the services of a funeral director should be based on your views and research. You should not rely solely upon the views and opinions offered by us.
Sylvette Flatman – 07/08/2017
My family and I want to thank you for your care, kindness, efficiency also but above all for your warmth and calm advice in organising my husband’s funeral. From the start we felt at ease and confident with you Fran and Carrie. At a time of immense sadness and shock, you steered us very gently and helped us to make decisions and create a personal and unique ceremony. The family felt that you brought thoughtfulness and a real human touch to the preparation of my husband’s funeral by enquiring about him, trying to get an impression of who he was.
I personnally was reassured and appeased by the dignified and personal approach you had. I was also greatly comforted by your hugs and our conversations.
You are helping so many people to say Goodbye to their loved ones in a moving and personal way. Many people commented on the beauty and emotion of the service.
We would recommend you to everyone we know.